February 5, 2016

Six Word Pairs Commonly Misused by Freelance Writers and Others

freelance writers

Um…yes, and you also need to actually correct mistakes.

Check out these six word pairs commonly confused and misused by freelance writers. Even the most experienced writers and journalists make mistakes on occasion. People frequently confuse affect and effect; lay, lie, lain, laid; capitol, capital; and principal, principle. But we wanted to go beyond the usual and share some equally important, yet often overlooked word abuse.

Blond and blonde – These French words correspond to the male and female forms of the adjective used to describe hair color. Blond refers to males or a mixed gender group. Blonde describes the hair color of females.

The British typically stick to the tradition, of course, and use the word “blonde” when describing a female and the word “blond” when describing a male or mixed gender group.

But we American freelance writers tend to rebel a bit against the status quo. While many purists do use the terms in the traditional way, others say that here in the good ol’ USA, the term “blond” refers to hair color and the term “blonde” refers to a person.

  • She has long blond hair.
  • The blonde in the corner is named Baby.

Loathe and loath – So many freelance writers, and even journalists, regularly mix up these two words. Loathe means “to hate” and writers should use it as a verb; whereas, loath describes a person’s unwillingness to do something. Writers should use it as an adjective.

  • Newman loathes broccoli, often calling it a vile weed.
  • Journalists are loath to discuss details about their sources.

Blatant and flagrant – It’s no wonder that freelancers confuse these two words, since their meanings overlap. Blatant refers to something noxious, offensive, unpleasantly loud, or noisy, especially in an obvious or conspicuous way. Writers should use the term, flagrant, to point out or emphasize the serious wrongdoing inherent in the offensive thing or behavior. A flagrant offense is so bad it cannot escape public notice.

Depending on context, some situations could allow for using either word. For example, one could consider violation of animal cruelty statutes as blatant or flagrant, depending on details. If the offenders violated the statutes without regard to witnesses or scrutiny, use the word blatant. If the acts of animal cruelty were committed with exceptional brutality or viciousness, use the word flagrant to describe them.

  • The freelance journalist caught that woman telling a blatant lie on her website.
  • The agent considered his act a flagrant violation of the protective order.
discreet and discrete

Be discreet about the two discrete topics of sex and love.

Discreet and discrete – Both of these adjectives sound exactly the same, causing many freelance writers to confuse and misuse them. One who shows prudence or self-restraint in behavior or speech is thought of as discreet; whereas, discrete refers to a wholly separate thing.

  • Nothing if not discreet, Pete Cashmore tried (to no avail) to initiate a private messaging session with Samantha.
  • Amy Tippins’ upcoming book will contain four discrete and inspiring sections.

Compliment and complement – Complement refers to either of two parts that make up a whole, two related angles with a sum equaling to 90o, complex proteins found in the blood plasma that work with the body’s immune system. Compliment refers to an expression of praise, congratulations, or admiration.

  • It [the tree] had kept its boughs unshattered, and its full complement of leaves (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables).”
  • He gave her such a sincere compliment that she became weak in the knees.
less and fewer

I have less ice cream than him!

Less and fewer – I confess that this one is commonly found in other “writing tips” articles, but it drives me nuts, so I had to include it. Less refers to something that consists of a smaller number, something in not as great amount or quantity as something else, or someone or something with lower importance. Less can work in a sentence as an adjective, pronoun, noun, or preposition.

Likewise, the term, fewer, also refers to something that amounts to or consists of a smaller number, but with subtle differences. The word, fewer, works as both an adjective and a pronoun.

Use “less” when referring to things you can’t count or that do not have a plural like money, rain, music, happiness. Use fewer when referring to things or people in their plural forms, such as diamonds, cats, vacations, or kisses.

  • She gave Robb two fewer kisses than she gave Jon, leaving him desperate for more.
  • He bought seven diamonds, but Tim purchased fewer.
  • She poured herself less wine than she wanted.
  • I have less money than I had yesterday.

Bonus Tip: Reticent – this word refers to a person’s inclination to keep his feelings or private matters to himself – a reluctance to speak. Freelance writers and journalists alike often use this term incorrectly by styling it in a sentence to infer reluctance or unwillingness in general (outside of a reluctance to speak with the tongue or pen). Please enjoy the two following examples of correct usage:

  • She quickly became known as reticent and quiet due to her unwillingness to write about her private life.
  • He became abruptly reticent when asked about the scent of her perfume on his cloak.

Word pair confusion and misuse abounds in both print and digital media. It’s a wild fantasy to think a few tips and suggestions will help stem the problem in any material way, but we’ve got to try.

Readers – do you have any sparkly word pairs or bonus words to add in the comment area? Please share.


Image credit: pop art courtesy of writeortakeanap dot wordpress dot com, other images istockphoto

About Samantha Gluck

Not only am I the chief editor of this multi-author online magazine, I'm a content creator and social media marketing strategist with a background in journalism, finance, & healthcare. I began my content marketing agency, All Media Freelance, LLC, in 2010 and lead a well-rounded, talented team of multi-channel content strategists and niche writers. I've developed and managed print and digital content projects for health care, fitness, financial services, mental health, non-profit, and automotive publishers, as well as for biotechnology brands.


  1. Great tips! I always look up the following:

    farther and further
    lie and lay
    who and whom

    When in doubt, I look it up. It never hurts to get a second or third opinion.

    • You’re right Amandah! I almost put further and farther on the list, but had to choose or the article would have taken forever to write. LOL

      Those three pairs you’ve listed here are some of the most frequently mixed up word pairs. I look up everything for which I have even the slightest doubt and still make stupid mistakes on occasion.

      Thanks for stopping by. XO

  2. That damn Pete Cashmore! Really enjoyed your post like always. Of course, with every blog you write the world knows more and more what I know…..the secret behind why you are my word goodess of editing and content!

  3. Even as discreet as I may be, I can’t help but decry that Pete Cashmore still has not realized the value in initiating a private messaging session with Samantha! Perhaps more reticent than first appearances.

    Otherwise, everything looks copacetic!

    • Bravo, Gib! You’re so funkaliciously creative! I feel so lucky to know you. I’d like to shout out to my readers that Gib here is a certified Law of Attraction practitioner. Visit him and check out how he can help you reach your potential inside and out.

  4. As you probably know, I wrote a Wordbite post about who/whom and past perfect laid/lain, among a couple others. The second one I wrote because I had never been sure how to use them correctly. Sure we make slips as humans, but as writers we have to constantly grow and learn, at least to stay accurate, and at best to stay fresh in our language use.
    Shakirah Dawud recently posted..Marketing: What You Think They’ll ThinkMy Profile

    • I do know, Shakirah, about your grammar polishing tip posts and they’re fabulicious! I still look them up — I think because I don’t use them often, so I still need to quell my doubting voice in my head when I do need to use them. I love learning new things about language. I just learned the origin and proper use of “nonplus” a couple of months ago. Again, I don’t use that term too often, but a nationally known journalist friend of mine (really my closest “guy” friend in the biz) wrote an update about it on G+ and I learned something new. I love that!

  5. As a reader, I love getting into the flow of a writer’s ideas, but misused words can be such a distracting interruption. Instead of smooth sailing, I get a splash of cold water in my face. When a writer makes that extra effort to keep me in that flow, I really appreciate (and remember!) those ideas better. That’s why I’m grateful for specific articles like this one. Thank you for going beyond the usual suspects, Samantha, and digging deeper into frequently-misused words that can convey great substance when used properly. This could be an entire series! XO!

    • Kathryn,

      I’m so honored to have you visiting and offering up your thoughts on our little website. It could be an entire series indeed. I’ll probably write subsequent posts of the same ilk, but just not sequentially. You know me –I like to mix it up. ;-) I love the imagery of the cold water in your face rather than smooth sailing you used in your comment, K! Brilliant, just like you. XO

  6. Wow – I learned a few things today. LOVE the cartoon :)
    My pet peeve is educated people who can’t discern their, there & they’re properly.
    This leads us into apostrophe abuse – an animal of its own. (its & it’s… cringe!)
    Love you, miss you!
    I’m ready to revive Write Voice Freelance, girlfriend. Let’s talk.
    Anna recently posted..Enough about Mom – Let’s Celebrate Me!My Profile

    • Anna! So blessed and beautiful to see you visiting and commenting on my site. I got your message and have been meaning to return the call, but have been so busy. Things will be better after this weekend.

      LOL! I thought that cartoon was pretty darned cute. And I’m with ya girlfriend, apostrophe abuse is just preposterous! I saw a funny cartoon the other day where a college girl and boy are walking together hand in hand and the girl says to the boy, “You had me at the proper use of you’re.” That’s how I feel too sometimes ;-).

      Anyway, so good to see you, Anna. I miss you too. Let’s talk next week.


  7. Thank you for the informative topic Samantha. I used to be a freelance writer, and found it hard because am not a native speaker… commonly am confused with centain words, that looks or sounds the same… some of them are:

    1. advice and advise (the former is a noun, the latter is a verb)
    2. us and as – the most common mistake I’ve done. Instead of us, I wrote as which is very hard to spot during the editing process.
    3. net and neat – well, recently I commit several mistakes of writing “net” instead of neat (describing a clean website interface)
    4. lost and loss – which is by now am still confuse in some intances.

    Again, thanks for this post!

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Prime. I think non-native speakers have a much better excuse for making these types of mistakes. It’s we native speakers that need to take more care in minding our Ps and Qs (so to speak). I still make some embarrassing mistakes on occasion, but I take those mistakes and turn them into learning opportunities. We can all help each other become better writers and communicate our thoughts more effectively.

      Again, I appreciate your taking the time to comment and share, Prime.



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